The European Union’s new foreign policy chief wasted no time in raising a human rights discussion about Hong Kong and Xinjiang with his Chinese counterpart, to Beijing’s dismay.
Josep Borrell said human rights was “a universal issue” and confirmed he had brought up Hong Kong, which has been embroiled in six months of anti-government protests, and Xinjiang, where an estimated 1 million Uygurs are detained, at the meeting in Madrid on Sunday.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi hit back, calling on Europe not to interfere in China’s domestic affairs.
Borrell, previously Spain’s foreign minister, said he had “extraordinarily good relations” with Wang since meeting him in New York 1½ years ago.
“We have been talking about the subjects you are referring to and we will continue doing it in the best approach in order to express the big concerns we Europeans have regarding human rights all over the world,” Borrell said.
“It is clear that when you deal with this kind of thing you are entering in to domestic issues. But human rights is not a domestic issue. Human rights is a universal issue.”
In response, Wang said China had made significant achievements in human rights, pointing in particular to the country’s tremendous effort to alleviate poverty.
“China has reduced the poverty population by 850 million,” Wang said, adding that China had built up a mass social security network and more than 1 billion new media users. “Every one in China enjoys sufficient freedom of speech as protected by the constitution.”
Borrell is one of the new crop of EU leaders who took office on December 1. The bloc’s tougher approach on China has been in place since March, when it began referring to the world’s second-largest economy as a “systemic rival”.
His meeting with Wang took place on the sidelines of Asem, the gathering of foreign ministers from the 27 EU states, China, South Korea, Japan and the 10 Asean countries, plus the European Commission.
Both Wang and Borrell used the Asia-Europe Meeting to highlight the need for multilateralism and a rules-based international order.
From Madrid, Wang went on to Brussels where he addressed the European Policy Centre on Monday, calling on Europe to respect China.
“China respects and appreciates Europe. It has never interfered in European internal affairs. We also hope Europe can respect China, and recognise the choice made by the Chinese people,” he said, stressing that China was on the right track for development.
“When the direction is right, why does China have to change? When everyone can benefit [from China’s development], why would they demand China change?”
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